Greg Whiteley is the director behind one of my favorite projects of the year, Last Chance U (you can read my review of season two here). Known for his work on documentary projects such as New York Doll and Mitt, Greg talked with me about how filming season two of Last Chance U was different than season one, whether the celebrity impact affected their shooting at all, the comparison to Friday Night Lights, and so much more. Keep reading to see his answers.
Congratulations on season two! I know I’m not the only one who has been waiting a long time for this to come out. How do you feel now that it’s finally out?
Well, I think there is a whole team of us who feel like we just gave birth for the second time. It’s a good feeling. It feels great.
Did you ever think we would be here talking about season two, especially because I read somwhere that that wasn’t in your original plans?
We didn’t necessarily plan that it wouldn’t go on past the first season. I think after we were shooting there for two or three weeks, all of us were pretty excited about what we were seeing and what we were getting. I guess I can’t speak for the rest of the crew but I always envisioned this going multiple seasons. I didn’t necessarily know we would go back to EMCC. But I think we saw this as something that could go multiple seasons.
This is a docuseries about a football team but it’s so much more than that. If you had to describe what it is about without using the word ‘football’ or any sports-related terms, how would you describe it?
I’m glad you ask it that way because I don’t really see this as a football series. I think this is a, maybe by virtue of the fact that it’s set in the South… [pauses] that’s a good question. It’s a human drama that I think involves a lot of Faulkian-like elements. There’s just an eccentricity to these characters that we met in Scooba, Mississippi, and we, I think, take great pride in letting their voice dictate the narrative of our show and there is, if the show has been successful, it’s because they’re interesting and we, as filmmakers, did our best to get out of our own way and let them tell the story.
I’m curious about how the whole thing started originally. When did you first hear about EMCC and this program? Did you have the idea to do a sports documentary and found this specific program to be the subject, or did the documentary idea come after you heard about the program?
Lucas Smith, who is an executive at MGM Entertainment and an executive producer on this show, we had a meeting together and the result of that meeting was that we though junior college football might be an interesting, it might provide the kind of climate and culture that would make for an interesting documentary series. But we didn’t know where to go. A few months later, an assistant to my manager found an article in GQ, written by Drew Jubera, and the moment I read that I thought, “This is where we need to be. This is the place.” So the idea came first.
The series is so beautifully shot. Can you talk about the process of capturing all the footage? I know it’s got to be extremely tough technically to shoot all of these football scenes.
Credit goes to Gabe Patay, the cinematographer who I’ve worked with previously. He’s fantastic. It seems like in most instances, you either have to pick fly-on-the-wall moments and sacrifice aesthetic, or you have a really great aesthetic and you’re kind of ruining the improvisational quality of the footage, the authenticity of the footage, or you’re either having to rehearse or stage or choreograph. Gabs has a very unique skill set along with his second, Terry Zumalt, who, their great talent was being able to capture images that had the aesthetic as though they were staged but you knew that they weren’t. So you had very beautiful, very human moments that were happening right before your very eyes, non-scripted moments, but they were shot with such poetry. I would take our images and stack them up against many accomplished feature-length films that can set the lighting and choreograph shots and do multiple takes. I think we were getting things on the first take because that’s what you have to do that I think would take a normal film many, many takes.
Was there anything different about the process in shooting season two? Was it easier because you had already had the experience of season one under your belt?
I think probably [just] because none of us had ever shot a football game before. I think we went in [to season two with] a little less anxiety because we kind of knew, “Okay, this will work,” because we didn’t know if this would work in season one. Will we have all of the coverage that we will need? So that helped. And then we just had to fight against re-creating season one. There was a lot of ambition and energy that grew out of that nervousness and insecurity of, “Well we want this to look good and we’ve never done this before, so we got to make sure we are hustling, covering all of our bases.” I think that kind of energy led to a sort of frantic, almost fog-of-war during games, and we wanted to keep that. So we brought back all the key members of the crew and augmented it with people with a little more sound experience and I think the difference was you have a show that, I hope, is a pretty good balance between we’re experienced, we know what we’re doing so it’s a little better, but we’re still keeping those fresh, scared eyes that I think led to that kind of energy that we were able to capture on film in season one.
Going off the pressure to keep what was good about season one, what was the pressure like going into season two, especially after season one was such a critically acclaimed hit and so many people loved it?
Oh, I guess you just try not to think about that too much. I always feel pressure. I’m always worried that we’re going to make something that’s going to be less than what we’re expecting. You just sort of set those anxieties aside.
Season two definitely touches on the “celebrity” impact that the first season had on the program and the people involved. How did that affect the plan, if at all, for how y’all went into season two? Did the people involved find themselves paying more attention to you guys and your presence?
That’s a really great question. I just think that we’ve been doing this for a while now, and whether you’re shooting a politician running for president or a glamorous rock star or a football team in the deep South, we just try, as best we can, to honor the authenticity of that particular moment. And in this particular moment, these people were quasi-celebrities. And we just need to honor that, we needed to acknowledge that. I don’t think it got in the way of shooting at all. I think them experiencing this small level of fame and them enjoying it was interesting. I think it made the show better. In my opinion it didn’t get in the way at all.
I definitely agree. And you touched on it a little bit earlier with the fly-on-the-wall moments, but I think one of my favorite aspects is the unfiltered, unlimited access that you guys get, especially all of the interviews. I loved seeing the guys in season two talk about and tell their stories on their terms. In terms of interviewing everyone, were there times when it was tough to get them engaged, especially considering the nature of some of the subjects you wanted them to address?
No, it was not a problem at all. I think all credit goes to President Huebner–he’s the person who had to sign off and be okay with the access we were asking for–and then Coach Buddy Stephens and his staff and mostly these players who were willing and trusted us enough to open the extensive parts of their lives. It was not hard, and it was not hard because of them. They were willing to be vulnerable and trusting in a way that I think is the whole secret to the success of what we did.
You kind of talked about it a little bit before but I really liked the fact that you show a lot of the Southern community and lifestyle and especially how it intertwines so naturally with the team. Do these aspects just naturally find their way into your footage, or did you guys make more of a conscious effort, especially in season two, to also get those shots that focus on those aspects?
Well, we spent a lot of time in season one explaining Scooba and sort of setting up the location and even treating Scooba as a character. To go back and redo that for season two, I think, would not be necessary. But, because we had gotten to know the town in season one, it was fun to go and get to know the town a little bit better. So it was a function of some of the people who we had met previously, like Ritchie the Lion, well let’s get to know him a little bit better and then in other instances you just meet other people because you just spent more time in the town and you’re broadening your periphery. I don’t know if this answered you’re question Bryna, but we just got to know them better and get to know the town better. I could keep going back to that town forever, I think it’s so interesting. Even though it’s only got a population of 300, 400 people, all of them seem have a really great story to tell; we only got to some of them.
That definitely answered my question. I, like a lot of people, noticed the obvious similarities to Friday Night Lights. First, have you seen the show? Second, was that in the back of your head throughout filming as a specific influence, especially in the second season after everyone made the comparisons?
Oh yeah. For sure. As much as I love sports, most of our crew didn’t. Most of our crew was not football fans and would not consider themselves sports fans. But, most of the crew enjoyed the show Friday Night Lights. So that was a touchstone. There were frankly other touchstones, Hoop Dreams being among them. But yeah, I’m sure Friday Night Lights subconsciously had an influence on what we were doing. I’m such a big fan of that TV show. I can’t tell you exactly, there was never anything conscious where, “Hey, we’re going to go do this shot because we saw it in Friday Night Lights, but subconsciously it’s all over it, sure. Especially the choice to focus on the human element of it. I think if you were to take a stop watch and measure how much actual football is in an episode of Friday Night Lights, it’s pretty close to how much football is in an episode of Last Chance U, which is not a lot. There’s way less than you think there is.
In five, ten, fifteen years, what impact and legacy do you hope the show has left?
I hope that it is appreciated for its unvarnished and authentic look at these particular lives at this particular time. Now, anything beyond that I just don’t even think about. I leave that to audiences. I leave that to people who will write and think and watch the show. We try and shoot it in a way that leaves space for audiences to bring their own meaning to it or away from it. I hesitate to say anything more than that. I have my own personal opinions about football and academics and major college athletics, and those feelings have really shifted by my experience of being in Scooba, but I hesitate to share them because I think I’d rather audiences take away their own meaning.
Lastly, our website is called Talk Nerdy With Us and we love talking about what makes us excited and passionate. So what do you nerd out over?
Oh. I guess I’m getting so self-conscious because I start to realize what a boring person I am. [Laughs] I nerd out on my work. I’m not sure it goes beyond that. Chocolate, maybe?
What do you have coming up? What is something you’re currently working on?
We’re exploring the possibility of season three. There have been some scripted opportunities that have come my way, personally, that we’re looking at. But nothing definitive yet.
Last Chance U season two is now available to watch on Netflix.